A restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh made international headlines last week after it came under fire from some members of the city's Jewish community for featuring Palestinian food on its menu.
The Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that serves up cuisine from countries engaged in some sort of conflict with the United States, rotating the menu every three to five months. In the past, they've served everything from the North Korean staple, naengmyeon, a bowl of chilled buckwheat noodles in a kimchi broth; to the popular Venezuelan street food, arepas, grilled corn cakes stuffed with various cheeses, beans and meat, or Aghanistan's take on a Middle Eastern favourite, tikka kebob, grilled skewers of marinated lamb over rice.
Now Conflict Kitchen has shifted its focus to the food of Palestine, and, like most things to do with the troubled territories under Israeli control, controversy soon followed.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh accused the restaurant of "stirring up conflict" for publicity's sake, especially considering Palestine is not at war with the U.S. Of course, literally speaking, neither are any of the other countries Conflict Kitchen has featured in the past, but they are all in some way at odds with common American ideology and deeply misunderstood outside of their own borders. It's also hard to question the restaurant's motives when the chefs there aren't simply mimicking recipes from the latest geopolitical hotspot, but working in collaboration with local ex-pat communities to create authentic dishes that honour the traditional cuisine of the country they're highlighting. Even the packaging the food comes in is meant to provoke a discussion. Order a falafel and you'll find the wrapper contains interviews with Palestinians on subjects ranging from culture to politics.
The idea, according to restaurant co-founder Joe Rubin, is not to court controversy, but to fill a gap in the city's monochromatic culinary offerings (One Jezebel writer recently described Pittsburgh's three most prominent cuisines as "Potatoes, Deconstructed Potatoes, and Potatoes Alfresco), as well as to spark a political and cultural dialogue that goes beyond the usual government rhetoric and sensationalism found in the mainstream media.
And what better way to bridge the cultural divide than through food? It's society's great equalizer, and often serves as the first and only gateway people have into the diverse cultures of the world. Jet-setting TV personality, chef and host of CNN's Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain, summed it up quite nicely when he said: "Food is everything we are."
"It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma," he said. "It's inseparable from those from the get-go."
The dinner table is also the perfect venue for broaching all the difficult topics we typically sweep under the rug. It's said you can learn the most about someone while sharing a meal, and the intimacy that can provide proves that old adage wrong that you should avoid discussing politics, religion and sex while in polite company. Who knows? Maybe if the Israelis and Palestinians broke bread together more often, peace in the Middle East's most troubled region wouldn't be such a distant possibility.